Anyone who hadn’t heard about the Washington Post story on the increasing problems facing White House chief of staff John Kelly shortly after it was published Saturday evening certainly had by Sunday morning. That’s when America’s most-watched tweeter drew the world’s attention to it.
“The Washington Post is far more fiction than fact. Story after story is made up garbage – more like a poorly written novel than good reporting. Always quoting sources (not names), many of which don’t exist. Story on John Kelly isn’t true, just another hit job!” Donald Trump declared in a rare tweet in recent days that didn’t include any words in all caps.
The president had some points. Parts of the piece did read a bit like an overheated work of fiction. Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who had a distinguished corporate and philanthropic career before entering public service, is described as “a diminished shell, fired by presidential tweet.” And the chief of staff himself, despite presiding over the most important office in the nation, is “the latest high-profile example of a West Wing Icarus — swept high into Trump’s orbit, only to be singed and cast low.”
But there are stories published daily on the dysfunction at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For the president to comment—on the same day he called out Russia for its support of “Animal Assad,” which is the latest and best nickname Trump has coined—indicates this one has struck a chord. And while the piece does rely heavily on anonymous sources, it does round up an awful lot of them: “16 administration officials, outside advisers and presidential confidants,” according to its trio of reporters.
The story, headlined “‘When you lose that power’: How John Kelly faded as White House disciplinarian,” asserts that “Kelly’s relationship with Trump has been especially turbulent in recent weeks.” On the day Trump fired his veterans affairs secretary, David Shulkin, Kelly “grew so frustrated” that many people interpreted his angry remarks as a threat to resign in a huff.
But the Washington Post story details another instance in which the chief of staff had threatened to quit, back in the fall, when President Trump said he wanted to fire Tillerson—which he eventually did, of course, without a resignation from Kelly. “In fact, Kelly has threatened to resign on multiple occasions” in his eight-month tenure, the Post admits. So why is another threat news?
Indeed, some of us could have predicted the thrust of the Post’s revelation before Kelly even started his task in the Oval Office. “The recurring and escalating clashes between the president and his chief of staff trace the downward arc of Kelly’s eight months in the White House. Both his credibility and his influence have been severely diminished, administration officials said, a clear decline for the retired four-star Marine Corps general who arrived with a reputation for integrity and a mandate to bring order to a chaotic West Wing.”
One can’t bring order to a White House whose chaos starts at the very top. President Trump thrives on—or at least great enjoys—chaos. The former reality-television star is a drama queen of the highest order. And it is naïveté of the highest order to think you can do the bidding of such a man, one who has only derision for the norms of polite society, and keep your credibility, your influence, and, most of all, your integrity. Has it really taken General John Kelly eight months to figure that out? Or has he long been looking for some escape that will allow him to leave one of the highest-profile jobs in the nation with some semblance of dignity?